Unraveling The Mystery of Mid-Winter Blues
Psychologist, holistic specialist provides uplifting advice.
As if the Bears’ NFC Championship loss, hike in income taxes and impending snowstorm weren’t enough to leave Lake Forest and Lake Bluff residents feeling a little down these days; Dr. Sandra Scheinbaum, a psychologist and holistic medicine specialist with Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital (NLFH), said residents may be suffering from “winter blues,” or – if symptoms are more persistent – from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Scheinbaum said the phenomenon of winter doldrums is nothing new, having been noted in sixth century historical documents describing lifestyle patterns in Nordic countries.
“Winter blues is a normal experience,” Scheinbaum commented. “Winter is a period of contracting and turning inward. It’s a part of the natural rhythm of our lives.”
Scheinbaum explained the experience of turning inward is typically characterized by eating greater quantities of food; eating heavier foods; sleeping more; and generally feeling sluggish.
Other symptoms include craving carbohydrates; withdrawing from family and friends; experiencing profound fatigue; and having difficulty concentrating, Dr. Scheinbaum added.
The onset of symptoms from winter blues/SAD is generally late fall or early winter, according to Scheinbaum.
Winter blues is distinguished from SAD “when symptoms become more intense and more frequent,” Scheinbaum said. “A patient’s symptoms may start out mild, but then they become more severe.”
Scheinbaum said patients suffering from SAD typically experience effects at the same time annually. “People notice a pattern, year after year,” she commented. “And the natural feeling of turning inward turns to hopelessness.”
The good news is there are many ways to prevent and treat the symptoms of both winter blues and SAD.
Let There Be Light
According to Scheinbaum, light – or lack thereof – is a key contributing factor to winter blues/SAD.
“It’s not very energy conscious, but turn on every light and make the house bright,” she recommended.
Other suggestions include raising the blinds and opening the drapes for more light; dressing up in layers and walking outside for five minutes; or even sitting by a window to expose yourself to the light.
Scheinbaum also suggested creating areas of heat, warmth and light in the home by striking up the fireplace and burning candles.
Light box therapy is another successful way to help curb some of the ill effects of reduced light in winter, according to Scheinbaum. Under this treatment, patients sit close to a light box – which mimics natural sunlight by producing a full spectrum of light – for 30 minutes to an hour a day. Scheinbaum advised patients interested in light box therapy to work with a health professional for guidance on proper use.
Scheinbaum said another effective light treatment is a dawn simulator. This device turns on in the morning with a dim light and mimics the sunrise by gradually getting brighter.
Breathe Deeply and Think Tropical Thoughts
Another way to ward off that winter funk, Scheinbaum said, is to warm up some essential oils. “Breathe in the essence,” she said. “Ginger, turmeric and cinnamon are spices we tend to crave during this time.”
Scheinbaum said she often uses visual therapy with her clients. She said it can be helpful to think of the positive images associated with winter, such as children sledding; going skiing or ice skating; or playing in the snow. “Find the joy in winter,” Scheinbaum said.
Alternatively, Scheinbaum said, imagine yourself in a beautiful, warm place. And for a more hands-on experience, plant seeds for the spring; add flowers and tropical plants to your home and workplace; or wear bright colors instead of the dark clothes typically worn in winter.
Something as simple as taking long, hot baths can do wonders to boost mood, said Scheinbaum. A sauna is wonderful if you have access to it, she added, as is hot yoga – a yoga class conducted in a room that is heated to 95-100°F. “You sweat,” Scheinbaum stated. “It’s great!”
Vitamin D, Melatonin, Omega-3 Essential
One of the best preventive measures people can take to avoid winter blues and SAD is to have their vitamin D levels checked by a health professional and, if necessary, increase their intake of the nutrient.
“Most people go into winter with low levels of vitamin D,” Scheinbaum commented. “Proper levels can create a dramatic decrease in the symptoms of SAD and increase overall immunity,” she said.
Vitamin D increases the level of serotonin, a brain chemical that impacts mood.
Dr. Scheinbaum said with the increased darkness, there also is a shift in the body’s circadian rhythms and, for some people, the biological clock can get out of step. Melatonin capsules, usually taken in the afternoon, can help. Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that influences sleep patterns.
Also important are adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in large amounts in fish. Scheinbaum explained although the habitants of many cold weather climates suffer from SAD symptoms, in Iceland the prevalence is very low. Researchers believe this may be the result of the Icelanders’ diet, which consists mainly of fish.
Dr. Scheinbaum recommended fish oil supplements to her clients, and said that patients should consult with a health care professional to determine the amount of melatonin or fish oil supplementation that’s right for them.
Exercise, Eat Right, Get More Sleep
Scheinbaum said other ways to boost mood and metabolism during the winter months include increasing exercise and movement, while decreasing intake of refined carbohydrates.
“During these months, the body is craving carbs, but we need whole grain carbohydrates,” she said.
Scheinbaum advises eating whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and oats; and focusing on real [unprocessed] foods such as soups and stews filled with vegetables.
“Our society has changed. We exercise less and watch TV more. We lead very busy lives, work long hours and go to bed late,” Scheinbaum commented, all of which can exacerbate the symptoms of winter blues.
Even small changes, such as going to bed a little earlier, can be a big help. “Go to bed by 10 p.m. From about 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. the body does its repair work,” Scheinbaum explained. Going to bed a little earlier in the winter helps to regulate the body’s biological clock and harmonize with its natural tendencies.
Change With The Seasons
Patients experiencing persistent SAD symptoms will want to obtain a referral to a psychologist, who may recommend cognitive therapy to help the patient work through the seasonal challenges, Dr. Scheinbaum added.
Serious cases of SAD, in which the patient is unable to function or is experiencing symptoms that are disrupting life, may require a trial of anti-depressant medication, though Scheinbaum said, “From my perspective, medication is a last resort.”
“Health professionals sometimes try to medicalize what is otherwise a normal experience,” Scheinbaum said. “Most people [experiencing seasonal challenges] make changes that are effective without resorting to medication.”
Scheinbaum added that SAD is not strictly a winter phenomenon: A more unusual form of the disorder is spring/summer SAD. These symptoms are nearly opposite their winter counterparts, Scheinbaum said, and include the inability to fall asleep; decreased appetite; and feeling jumpy, jittery and anxious.